Breaking Down the Resurgence of 2nd-Year DT Nick Fairley
The Lions' playoff hopes are on life support with a hand on the plug.
Titus Young looks like an absolute diva who lacks the ability to back it up on the field.
Matthew Stafford is coming off a bad game, and Scott Linehan's tenure might be on the ropes.
Sounds like a lot of bad stuff, and it is. But there's one thing, at least, that has given the last two (highly disappointing) games a silver lining.
Nick Fairley is starting to look like the kind of player who would be considered a steal at 13th overall. For two games now, Fairley has dominated at the point of attack.
Better yet, he's forcing his way into the backfield and still maintaining gap discipline. The knock on the Lions' aggressive defensive front last year was that they were too susceptible to the big running play. This year, they seem to be playing more disciplined.
The interesting thing about that is that the Lions' prime run-stopper on the line, Corey Williams, has missed a big chunk of the season with an injury. Fairley has taken his place, and despite offseason troubles and a slow start to the season, the man is starting to show flashes of brilliance.
As a playmaker, Fairley has been more visible than anyone in the front four over the last two games. That doesn't mean he's better than Ndamukong Suh or Cliff Avril right now, but he is making the most of his opportunities.
Take, for instance, Fairley's stuff of John Kuhn to end the third quarter.
The first thing to notice is how these guys line up. Suh, predictably, has two guys on him, even though the play isn't coming to his side. That leaves Fairley alone with Packers center Jeff Saturday, whom Fairley basically wears on his hip the moment the ball is snapped.
This is why, during the combine and draft hype period, people talk about linemen who explode off the line. They can get into—and past—offensive linemen before they have a chance to react, which immediately puts them back on their heels.
Here's what that play looks like about a quarter-second later, to illustrate.
Fairley is in charge in the backfield, Saturday is desperately hanging off of him and Kuhn has just realized he has nowhere to go.
This brings us to phase three. Fairley is a powerful man, but he has a 295-pound man still working against him and a 250-pound man in front of him running the football. This should still be a challenge.
Oh. Well, maybe not. Turns out we're dealing with a man who can just pull down a 250-pound fullback with one arm.
But big deal, right? We all knew Fairley was a big, strong guy who likes to force his way into the backfield. That can be easily negated by a skilled offensive lineman.
What made Fairley so productive in this game, though, was not his aggressiveness, but his patience and discipline.
On the Kuhn play, Fairley just shot into the backfield and happened to be in front of the ball-carrier. Some skill, some luck.
But on his sack-fumble of Aaron Rodgers, his initial advance was stopped, so he hung back to keep Rodgers in the pocket. He could have immediately made a second move, but that could have gotten him pancaked or driven out of the play.
Instead, he waits. Presumably, he's positioning himself to bat down the ball, but once the pocket seals up to give Rodgers no way out, Fairley makes his move.
As I've pointed out, there are a couple of acres for Rodgers to run through if Fairley (the only defensive lineman both in front of Rodgers and on his feet) plays this wrong.
But he doesn't. As soon as he sees Rodgers has only one route of escape from the pocket, he makes the move on his blocker to attack Rodgers from that direction.
Rodgers steps up with the ball at his waist, and Fairley steps right into him, knocking the ball out for the sack-fumble.
Just a great, disciplined read by Fairley, and yet that wasn't the best part of this play.
The best part came after Jeff Saturday recovered the fumble. At the time, Fairley lifted a helpless Rodgers completely off the turf.
Once he got Rodgers bent back far enough, he turned, and...
set Rodgers gently back on his feet.
It looked like the precursor to a full-on body slam, without question.
Rodgers wasn't even going to get a chance to brace himself; it was just going to be a five-foot throwdown. A fantastic three-and-out by the Lions defense would be negated by a personal foul penalty, prompting Joe Buck to start talking about the Lions' discipline issues and the Suh "stomp" again.
But no. Instead, Fairley controlled himself, put the team first and set Rodgers back on his feet. That was the difference between a Packer punt and a Packer first down at the 25-yard line.
If this is the Nick Fairley the Lions have to look forward to, one with equal parts power, intelligence and discipline, then the 13th overall pick was well worth it.
So even if the Lions aren't as interesting as a non-playoff team, take heart. Watching Fairley grow into his role and make Corey Williams' impending free agency into a non-issue in the process is fun.
Now the biggest question for Fairley is whether he can sustain his recent performance against an offensive line better than that of the Packers.
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